Beef influence on dairy cattle could improve marketing options, bottom line

Beef-on-dairy breeding program can add value to calves from dairy system grown for beef by improving growth, performance and overall carcass value.

March 22, 2018

4 Min Read
Beef influence on dairy cattle could improve marketing options, bottom line
A beef influence in the breeding program of dairy operations for some of their cows can increase the marketability of their calves, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.(Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Dairy owners might be able to add more to their bottom line if they introduce a beef bull into their breeding program for some of the producing cows in their herd, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef cattle specialist Ted McCollum said.

Not just any bull from the sale barn will work, McCollum said at the recent High Plains Dairy Conference in Amarillo, Texas. “At today’s costs, dairy calves generally look at a $70 hickey because of inefficiency in the feedyard, and there are other value concerns relative to a beef calf,” McCollum said. “These costs and value concerns have to work back through the system to the dairy calf value.”

McCollum said a beef-on-dairy breeding program can add value to the calves from the dairy system grown for beef by improving growth, performance and overall carcass value. It also may reduce costs associated with losses from calving difficulty and stillbirths.

Some issues for dairy cattle in the beef market include lower rates of gain, inferior feed efficiency, too light or too heavy final weight/carcass weights, reduced red meat yield and dairy conformation discounts, he said.

With straight-bred Jersey-type cattle, one problem is light carcasses, McCollum said. Carcasses need to weigh more than 625 lb. to avoid discounts. Some Holstein cattle, on the other hand, can be too large-framed. “Both can be issues at the packer,” he said.

Fed beef cattle will have higher carcass yield and red meat yield relative to dairy type cattle fed for the beef market, McCollum said. At similar live weights, dairy-type cattle yield lighter carcasses, and the carcasses may yield fewer retail beef cuts than a beef animal.

“Beef cattle dress out at about 64% and dairy at 61% or 62% or less,” he said. “You’re losing carcass weight. Again, these are factors that influence the value of dairy calves relative to beef calves.”

Another issue with dairy cattle going into the beef market is their conformation — what the carcass musculature looks like, McCollum said. “They are simply light-muscled, and their rib-eye is a different shape,” he said. “If you sell cattle on the grid, there is a discount on dairy conformation that has nothing to do with yield or quality grade.”

Those are some issues that can be addressed and improved if a dairy owner will consider using a beef bull on a portion of their dairy cows, McCollum noted.

“So, what kind of bulls do you look for? Because of the combination of characteristics needed in a bull, you are not going to find the bull you need at the sale barn,” he said. “Select bulls to complement characters of the dairy breed. Find bulls of known genetic potential for birth weight, growth, muscling, carcass grade and weight, or work with an (artificial insemination) company with programs that offer beef sires targeted for use on dairy cows.”

Traits to look for, McCollum said, are feeding performance: gain and efficiency, final weight, carcass weight, muscling, conformation and red meat yield. When considering sire selection for Jersey and Jersey-influenced cows, additional traits to consider are lower birth weight and accelerated growth. Sires to use on Holstein cows will vary from the desirable sires to use with Jersey and Jersey-type cows.

McCollum also addressed some questions about the use of sexed semen to produce bulls rather than heifers and market weight and timing for steers and heifers aimed at the feeder cattle market.

He said male calves always sell for more than females in the beef market. The producer will need to compare the dollar difference for a steer and heifer and then make a determination on whether that difference is enough to offset the cost of using sexed semen.

“Currently, on the light calf market -- 400-500 lb. -- there is a $10-20/cwt. differential, so $40-100 per head,” McCollum said. “So, you have to determine if this justifies the added expense of sexed semen.”

As to the marketing, he said at the weights dairy calves typically leave calf ranches, there should be no concern about weight presented on the calf market. If the calves are held to heavier weights with intentions to market them as feeder cattle, then heifers need to move at about 650-700 lb. and steers at 750-850 lb.

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